Atheist Centre 50+ Golden Jubilee (1940-1990)
International Conference on
"Future of Atheism -- Humanism"
Vijayawada, December 29-31, 1990
[OCR, HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]
Democracy and Individual Liberty
M. N. Roy
From "New Humanism"
The philosophy which will give modern mankind a new hope and a new faith must put a concrete content into the concept of freedom. If the liberating possibility of social organisation and political institutions is still to be judged by divergent ideological prejudices, discordant doctrines and conflicting dogmas, common efforts for overcoming the present crisis, the greatest in history, and for promoting human progress, will remain a matter of wishful thinking. A common standard of freedom alone can make such common efforts possible.
Quest for freedom can be referred back to man's struggle for existence. It accounts for the triumph of men over nature, in the course of his efforts to satisfy his biological needs. It provides the basis for his constant search for knowledge, which enables him to be progressively free from the tyranny of natural phenomena and physical and social environments. Quest for freedom is a continuation on a higher level -- of intelligence and emotion -- of the biological struggle for existence. In modern society, an individual, to be free, must not only be able to enjoy economic sufficiency and security, but live in a social psychological atmosphere free from cultural regimentation and helpful to the development of his intellectual and other human potentialities. Progressive attainment of freedom in this wide sense by the individuals composing society should provide the criterion for judging the merits of social organisation. Guided by the dictum of ancient wisdom that man is the measure of everything, the philosophy of the future should proclaim that the merit of any pattern of social organisation or political institution is to be judged by the actual measure of freedom it gives to the individual.
Whether it is the nation or a class, any collectivity is composed of individuals. Society is a creation of man -- in quest of freedom. Cooperative social relationships were established originally with the purpose of reinforcing the struggle for existence, which the primitive man had undertaken as individual. The quest for freedom is the continuation of the primitive man's struggle for existence. As such, it is the basic urge of all social advancement. Freedom is the progressive elimination of all the factors -- physical, social, psychological -- which obstruct the unfolding of man's rational, moral and creative potentialities. The function of social relationships should be to secure for individuals, as individuals, the maximum measure of freedom. The sum total of freedom actually enjoyed by its members individually is the measure of the liberating or progressive significance of any social order. Otherwise, the ideals of social liberation and progress are deceptive.
No political philosophy nor a scheme of social reconstruction can have more than a very limited revolutionary significance if it dismisses the concept of individual freedom as an empty abstraction. A political system and an economic experiment, which subordinate the man of flesh and blood to an abstract collective ego, cannot possibly be the suitable means for the attainment of the goal of freedom. It is absurd to argue that negation of freedom is the road to freedom. The purpose of all rational human endeavour, collective as well as individual, should be the attainment of freedom in ever larger measure, and freedom is real only as individual freedom.
A new world of freedom will not result automatically from an economic reorganisation of society. Nor does freedom necessarily follow from the capture of political power by a party claiming to represent the oppressed and exploited classes. The abolition of private property, State-ownership of the means of production, and planned economy do not by themselves end exploitation of labour, nor lead to an equal distribution of wealth. By disregarding individual freedom on the pleas of taking the fullest advantage of technology, of efficiency and collective effort, planned economy defeats its own purpose. Instead of ushering in a higher form of democracy on the basis of economic equality and social justice, it may establish a political dictatorship. Economic democracy is no more possible in the absence of political democracy than the latter is in the absence of the former. That consideration should be borne in mind by those who make a fetish of economic planning.
The crucial question is: planning for what? It is assumed that planned economy will guarantee the greatest good to the greatest number; in other words, it will mean equal distribution of wealth -- establish social justice. In that case, it should be possible to reconcile planning with freedom. If modern technological trends preclude such reconciliation, then they should be curbed so as to be more amenable to human welfare. Machine should not be the Frankenstein of modern civilisations. Created by men, it must subserve man's purpose -- contribute to freedom.
The practice of Western Democracy is equally disappointing. Traditional democratic Socialism, therefore, also does not inspire any confidence of success. Democracy must reorientate itself. It must revert to the Humanist tradition. It must not be limited by the counting of heads, particularly when the heads have not the opportunity to raise themselves with sovereign dignity. Formal parliamentarism must be replaced by actual democratic practice. The character of a party is to be judged not by its ability to catch votes, but by the merit of its proclaimed principles and published programme. The people should be asked to vote not for professions and promises, but by judging the record of a government. Democratic practice which is no more than mere counting of heads, in the last analysis is also a homage to the collective ego. It allows scope neither for the individual nor for intelligence. Under the formal parliamentary system, unscrupulous demagogues can always come to the top. Intelligence, integrity, wisdom, moral excellence, as a rule, count for nothing. Yet, unless the purifying influence of these human values is brought to bear upon the political organisation and administration of society, the democratic way of life can never be realised.
Man must again be the measure of all things. Intelligence, integrity, wisdom, moral excellence, should be the test of leadership. Democracy can no longer be taken simply for granted. To-day all the function of a revolutionary and liberating social philosophy is to lay emphasis on the basic fact of history, that man is the maker of this world -- man as a thinking being, and he can be so only as an individual. The brain is the means of production, and produces the most revolutionary commodity. Revolutions presuppose iconoclastic ideas. An increasingly large number of men, conscious of their creative power, motivated by an indomitable will to remake the world, moved by the adventure of ideas, and tired with the ideal of a free society of free man, can create conditions under which democracy will be possible.